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What the NFL Should Have Known Before Suspending a Player for Medical Marijuana

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The NFL recently suspended Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson for violating their substance abuse policy. On the surface, that sentence doesn’t seem overtly controversial. The NFL has policies against drug use, and players who use drugs, as a result, face consequences.

But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a lot more to this story. The substance in question is marijuana, and Henderson was prescribed the drug by his doctor to treat Crohn’s disease.

As a lifelong rule follower, I understand the need, especially in a major organization like the NFL, to be unbending with your rules and regulations. However, as a patient with Crohn’s myself, this news is unendingly frustrating. As America progresses and marijuana is legalized for medical use, organizations like the NFL need to adjust said rules and regulations accordingly.

Many will argue that Henderson has a choice — after all, there are so many medications out there, he doesn’t have to go the route of medical marijuana, right? But this is a privileged and ableist viewpoint that ignores the struggles patients endure in trying to find the right medications to treat their specific and ever-evolving case.

For one Crohn’s patient, Tylenol and positive thoughts might be enough to deal with the abdominal pain that is a hallmark of this disease. For others, essential oils and a heating pad might do the trick. For some it’s antispasmodics. For more still, it’s opioid pain medication — which comes with a lot of other tricky and frightening issues, like potential addiction. And for another class of patients, like Henderson, they’ve found medical marijuana does the trick. This doesn’t mean that the people who take only Tylenol are strong and those who need painkillers or marijuana are weak, it simply means that every case is wildly different, with extremely varying amounts of pain. It’s best to defer to the patient’s doctor who, in Henderson’s case, clearly believes marijuana to be the answer.

For my personal case, we’re still in a long line of trial and error to figure out what will help me get through the pain. But if Seantrel Henderson has found medical marijuana to be his lifesaver, he shouldn’t have to choose between his football career and a medication that allows him to alleviate some of the debilitating pain that accompanies this disease.

This story and the responses to it are precisely why increasing awareness for IBD is so important. The uneducated responder will say Henderson should just try a different medicine, or that he’s just using his Crohn’s as an excuse to do drugs. They’ll say they knew someone with Crohn’s once and it wasn’t that bad, so they’re sure Henderson’s case isn’t either. They’ll say all sorts of false and insensitive things that all stem from a lack of understanding.

So for an institution like the NFL, that gives its players a slap on the wrist for horrific crimes like domestic violence, it seems unconscionable to take such a hard stance against a man just trying to get by while dealing with a chronic illness. The fact that he’s been able to manage his disease to a point of being a professional athlete is truly inspiring, and we need to do more to help advocate for patients — not punish them for their modes of treatment.

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Lead photo by Buffalo Bills en espanol

Originally published: December 2, 2016
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